• Espionage case reported online by local media then pulled down
  • Debate raging among elite over relations with China, U.S.

Vietnam convicted a journalist for spying for China, in a move that highlights the rift within the Communist government over whether to stay loyal to its traditional ally or move closer to the U.S.

Ha Huy Hoang, a former reporter at The World & Vietnam Report, a Vietnamese foreign ministry publication, was sentenced to six years in prison Wednesday for espionage and providing intelligence, his lawyer Ha Huy Son said by phone. Hoang’s conviction was reported by several Vietnamese news websites, which later pulled down their stories.

Relations between Vietnam and China, by far its largest trading partner, have been inflamed by China reclaiming reefs in the South China Sea, and its placing last year of an oil rig in waters near the contested Paracel Islands.

“Part of the political elite favors closer ties with the U.S. because they are concerned about China,” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said by phone. “They authorized these media reports and as soon as they did, those who are concerned about not damaging relations with China applied pressure to have the reports taken down.”

U.S. Shift

The pace of high-level visits between Hanoi and Washington has picked up since the oil-rig incident.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in the Vietnamese capital in June, and he was followed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in August. On a visit to Washington in July -- the first by a Communist Party chief to the U.S. -- General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong invited President Barack Obama to visit Vietnam.

Trong called for closer relations with the U.S. during his Washington visit. “We highly appreciate the United States’ increasing interest in the situation in the East Sea,” he said, referring to Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea.

President Truong Tan Sang said Sept. 28 that cooperation between Vietnam and the U.S. is indispensable to ensuring peace and security in the region, the Saigon Times reported.

The internal debate over relations with the U.S. and China is heating up as Vietnam prepares for its Party Congress next year, during which a political transition occurs, Thayer said.

“There is this fierce debate going on about the move to the U.S., which is stepping on all the norms that have guided Vietnam up to this time,” he said. “If we are going to take this step of deepening relations with the U.S., we have to brace for reactions from China.”

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